An NFL draft light on great quarterbacks is good news for college football fans: The 2013 season is loaded with talented and accomplished players at the most important position in sports. So throughout the rest of the summer, we're counting down the top 10 quarterbacks in college football, one per week until the season kicks off. These rankings are based on college ability, not necessarily NFL potential, although this week, Louisville junior Teddy Bridgewater checks in at No. 2, and he certainly has both.
10. Brett Hundley, UCLA
9. David Fales, San Jose State
8. Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois
7. Aaron Murray, Georgia
6. Braxton Miller, Ohio State
5. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
4. Tajh Boyd, Clemson
3. AJ McCarron, Alabama
2. Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville
If there's a professional quarterback playing college football in 2013, it's not Johnny Manziel. It's Teddy Bridgewater.
The campaign will be underway by mid-September. Once certain NFL fanbases begin accepting how bad their teams are after a couple weeks of reality set in, thoughts will drift toward the spring and the 2014 NFL draft. Naturally, that attention will focus on South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, and for good reason: He's the best defensive prospect in years.
Still, there may be one man who can unseat Clowney as the first name called. For fans of, say, the Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars, adding some Louisville games to your DVR will be worth the effort, because, if it isn't already clear, this season will show that Bridgewater will end up every bit as deserving of the No. 1 overall pick as Clowney.
Yes, Louisville's schedule is lousy, and he may not face a truly great defense until a BCS game. Yes, expectations surrounding Louisville need to be tempered. But make no mistake -- Bridgewater deserves every bit of the personal hype he's getting, even if he shies away from it. There is no better pure passer playing college football today, and it goes without saying that there's no more valuable asset for an NFL team.
There's a moment in last season's Sugar Bowl that encapsulates what makes Bridgewater such an effective QB. It's not a "wow" type of throw or anything, not a 30-yard strike between defenders (although he can do that too). But on third-and-four with pressure coming off the edge to his right, Bridgewater calmly sidesteps a pass rusher, keeps his feet balanced and his eyes downfield, steps up through the rush to find a wide-open passing lane and delivers an imperfect but catchable ball to receiver Eli Rogers coming across the middle for a 15-yard gain into Florida territory.
Evaluating quarterback prospects for the NFL is an inexact science, as has been proven time and time again, but one of the most important traits is how a player handles pressure in the pocket. Sometimes, college quarterbacks play behind good offensive lines in quick-read systems that significantly limit the pressure they see, giving scouts a limited sample size to work with. More than anything, struggling with pressure is what has caused Blaine Gabbert and Kevin Kolb to fail to meet expectations in the NFL. It's just hard to predict how some quarterbacks will react with NFL pass rushers flying around them.
We won't say that about Bridgewater. The QB is always partially to blame for sacks, and he took a lot -- Louisville ranked 85th in sacks allowed last season -- but in his case, he played behind a mediocre offensive line and still completed 68.5 percent of his passes for 3,718 yards with 27 touchdowns and eight picks. And, incredibly, he completed 18 of 27 passes for 308 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions in third-and-10-plus situations, according to cfbstats.com; in other words, his completion rate in long-yardage situations in which the defense knew he was passing was only slightly lower than his overall rate.
The idea that Louisville's Sugar Bowl win over Florida shouldn't be overblown and seen as proof that the Cardinals are national title contenders has been covered endlessly, including here, but we can still walk away from that game feeling great about how well Bridgewater played against what was statistically one of the best defenses in college football. The Gators finished No. 2 in pass efficiency defense, allowing only seven TDs with 20 interceptions all season. Bridgewater completed 20 of 32 passes for 266 yards with two TDs and a pick, not exceptional numbers at face value, but better than anyone else performed against the Gators all year.
Even still, that was not his most impressive performance, and neither was his three-game stretch against Cincinnati, Temple and Syracuse in which he threw for a total of 1,164 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The most impressive performance of all, by far, was at Rutgers, Big East title on the line after a disappointing upset loss to UConn. Bridgewater didn't take a snap in practice leading up to the Thursday kickoff, and he didn't start the game either. He watched from the sideline while nursing a broken wrist and an ankle injury. But with a BCS bowl on the line, he entered the game in the second quarter anyway, and he proceeded to complete 20 of 28 passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns in three quarterbacks against a solid Rutgers team that ranked 10th nationally in total defense.
Needless to say, it was an emotional evening for Bridgewater and coordinator Shawn Watson:
In 13 games, Bridgewater obliterated any lingering doubt about his ability to meet expectations after an up-and-down freshman season in which he threw 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He transformed himself from hypothetical NFL prospect to bona fide blue-chipper. And he's still not even 21 years old.
In this age, I must clarify that you should please not take "Teddy Bridgewater is a professional quarterback" as some sort of proclamation on my part that Bridgewater has violated the spirit of amateurism, or some other phrase that the NCAA would probably say. What it means is that Andrew Luck is the only quarterback in recent history who has looked more like a professional quarterback at the college level than Bridgewater, who is playing a different game than most college defenders and opposing QBs. He has two years of eligibility left, but it's a foregone conclusion that he'll go pro, as he should.
Whereas a player like Manziel is fun to watch because of his improvisational ability, Bridgewater is fun to watch because of how polished he is as a passer. Nobody in the sport can methodically take apart a defense like he can. Nobody combines his arm strength with his pocket mobility, with his feel for pressure, with his ability to read a defense and cycle through his options -- and then his ability to perfectly place passes. The Manziels of the world provide a more tangible sense of greatness -- that is, more mind-blowing moments. Bridgewater is of the Luck/Manning/Brady school of mastering the fine details of the position, both mentally and physically. For Manziel, playing quarterback has turned into an art, and he's the best quarterback artist there is. For Bridgewater, it's a science.
Four years ago, Louisville finished 4-8, reeling through a post-Petrino abyss. It didn't take long to recover. With the help of coach Charlie Strong, Bridgewater carried the Cardinals to an 11-2 record last year. Similar success is expected this fall, which means Bridgewater has done as much as a quarterback can do to help rebuild a program.
So which NFL team will be lucky enough -- or bad enough -- to be next?